|By Matt Barnwell, The Macon Telegraph,
Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 20, 2007 - In the face of substantial public opposition, the Macon City Council on Tuesday voted to hire Atlanta developer Noble Investment Group to build a hotel in the parking lot next to the Macon Coliseum and Wilson Convention Center.
The measure, passed 9-6, heads now to the desk of Mayor Jack Ellis for final approval.
"I'm going to sign it, yes," Ellis said Tuesday. "I have 12 days though."
About 120 people filled the council chamber at City Hall, most of whom appeared to disagree with the hotel proposal. A few in the largely docile crowd carried small signs that read "No Hotel."
But it was not enough to dissuade the majority of the council, as some members blamed a well-orchestrated campaign by supporters of a rival developer and incomplete media reports for creating public doubt in a plan they said was sound.
"I'm excited for Macon," said City Council President Anita Ponder, who voted for the hotel. "It's a step forward, and that's good."
Once Ellis signs the document, the city moves into the fundraising phase. Over the next several weeks, officials will put together documents needed to sell $10 million in revenue bonds to pay for the city's portion of the $32 million hotel.
Macon must deliver its dollars within 120 days of closing the deal with Noble. Issuing the bonds will require approval from Macon's Urban Development Authority, whose members already have indicated a willingness to cooperate. A Bibb County Superior Court judge must validate the bonds before they can be issued.
The contract allows the city to back out of the deal without penalty if a judge declines to validate the bonds. If a lawsuit arises that prevents the city from making its promised payment in time, Macon must pay half of Noble's predevelopment fees. If the city on its own walks away from the deal, it must pay all of Noble's predevelopment fees, up to $1.76 million.
Councilman Henry Ficklin, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, defended the council's selection of Noble to build the hotel.
But he tried Tuesday to postpone the vote. More needed to be done to convince residents the city was making the right choice, he said, and to fully explore the idea of building on private land across the street from the convention center.
On top of that, he said, officials must make sure the city can bear the debt load that will be incurred when the bonds are sold.
"What is the hurry?" Ficklin said. "Why do it in this furor? Why do it in this time?"
The hotel issue has been hotly disputed since late 2005, when Ellis and a committee of community leaders chose a proposal to build the hotel across the street from the convention center. That plan, put forward by rival developer National Ventures Macon, included a number of local movers and shakers.
But the council overruled that recommendation and instead picked Noble.
Noble also will lease and operate the convention center, and manage the coliseum and auditorium.
Councilman Alveno Ross, who voted for Noble's hotel plan, said the city needs to move forward, and that meant taking some risk. Macon is geographically-advantaged, he said, and the hotel will help the city exploit its location in the middle of the state. Right now, opportunities are passing the city by.
"It's really sad for me personally," he told the audience, "to think I can look out among you and see that you're so riled up against this."
Council members who voted against the proposal said it would saddle the city with too large of a financial burden. Councilwoman Nancy White predicted it would be an "albatross" around the neck of the next mayor and council. Councilwoman Miriam Paris said placing $1.7 million over the head of the city is "just not the right thing to do."
Councilman Mike Cranford said the council should postpone its vote and send the matter to a public referendum.
That would have been required if the city used general obligation bonds to fund the hotel's construction.
"So the decision would not be ours, it would be yours," he told the audience. "So there is another option out there."
Councilman Rick Hutto voted against Noble's plan, but suggested that paying millions of dollars in bonds for any hotel may be too steep of a price.
He likened it to buying a suit for half-price that doesn't fit.
Councilwoman Brenda Youmas, who voted in favor of the hotel, said the strife that has been created is mostly the fault of bickering private investors. The city has undertaken several studies and hired consultants to help it pick the best hotel plan. Council members simply are going with what ultimately has been recommended to them, she said.
"That was not a decision we made," she said. "That was a decision chosen by the consultant. ... I think we're going to have to take some chances and move forward, and hope that our investment will help the city to grow."
A handful of people spoke against the hotel at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting.
Council rules allowed only three people to speak specifically on the topic. Among those who addressed the legislative body was Forest Hill Road resident Shirley Gray. She had solicited the opinions of her neighbors and fellow church members, and all opposed the hotel, she said.
Residents would have preferred a referendum, she said, and want the city to get back on the road to financial solvency.
That will be difficult to do if Macon puts itself in debt to build the hotel, she said, predicting that many council members' days in public office are numbered because of their vote.
"I would like to see this turned around," she said, "and become the city that we used to be 10 years ago."
Mayoral candidate Lance Randall, who previously worked for National Ventures but now says he no longer does, also spoke against the Noble hotel plan. Government should pay better attention to residents, he said.
"Even the best project in the world -- and this is not the best project in the world -- should not be undertaken if it is against the will of the people," he said.
To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.
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Copyright (c) 2007, The Macon Telegraph, Ga.
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